By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System
Four UC undergraduates have been awarded the UC Natural Reserve System’s first Field Science Fellowships. The fellowship is intended to enable these highly motivated students to concentrate full time on their field science research for an entire summer with the guidance of a UC faculty mentor.
“The fellowship applications we received were truly stellar,” says Erin Marnocha, Program Coordinator for the UC Natural Reserve System. “We are thrilled to be able to to support important research and offer undergraduates an opportunity to show what they can achieve as scientists.”
Each undergraduate student teams up with a UC faculty member to apply to the uniquely structured fellowship. Recipients are awarded a $5,000 stipend for the student and $1,000 to cover project costs.
The program encourages applications from students from ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds underrepresented in the sciences, including but not limited to African-American, Latinx, Native American, Pacific Islander, and first-generation college students.
Without the fellowship support, “I would likely need to pick up another summer job, like as a cashier in a restaurant, to make some extra money for college,” says Madeline Handy, a third-year student from UC Davis. “Being able to dedicate my whole summer to this project will help move it forward at a faster rate.”
Handy and her mentor, professor of entomology and nematology Rachel Vannette, proposed to study the microbiome of native bee incubation cells. Rather than laying their eggs in honeycombs, solitary bees pack holes in the earth or hollow twigs with pollen and nectar to feed a single developing larva. Handy and Vannette will collect bee brood cells from Stebbins Cold Canyon and Bodega Marine reserves, then use genetic sequencing to identify the bacteria and yeast inside. These microbes are thought to keep the provisions from spoiling and may be involved in the health of the baby bee.
“We plan to structure the study so Madeline gets to do a lot of the design, sampling, extracting of the DNA, and the bioinformatics herself, write up the project for publication too,” Vannette says. “This experience will be formative, helping Madeline to decide what she’s passionate about and wants to pursue in the future.”
Cynthia Frausto of UC Los Angeles plans to spend her summer running wild ground squirrels through mazes at the NRS’s James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve. In addition to seeing whether bold or shy animals perform better, she’ll also analyze the level of the stress hormone cortisol in the animals’ droppings. The goal is to study how personality, stress, and learning affect decision-making in these rodents.
“This program is helping teach students from the first steps of experimental design to fruition as a publication,” says Frausto’s mentor Peter Nonacs, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “It’s very advantageous for an undergraduate to already have done research that is peer reviewed and published. That opens doors for things like NSF proposals, and admission to excellent research programs.”
“We designed the program to give students a pathway into environmental careers,” says Peggy Fiedler, Executive Director of the UC Natural Reserve System. “Students will get a quality research experience while also developing a connection with their faculty mentor. Such mentoring relationships are key to helping students progress in academia and beyond.”
Other recipients of the fellowship include Raymond Hunter of UC Santa Cruz, who plans to survey stream invertebrates at Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve in Big Sur; and Madeline Frey of UC Davis, who proposed a survey of ribbon worm diversity at Younger Lagoon, Norris Rancho Marino, Bodega Marine, Landels-Hill Big Creek reserves.
Funding for NRS Field Science Fellowships is made possible through the Samuelsen Conservation Scholars Initiative. The initiative addresses the need to train students from diverse backgrounds to become the next generation of environmental leaders. The initiative honors the first director of the NRS, J. Roger Samuelsen.